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Debate Rages on the Inclusion of Old Age in the ICD-11

The debate hinges on what is, and is not, a pathology.

DebateDebate
 

A significant debate has originated regarding the inclusion of MG2A, a code for old age, in the ICD-11 for Mortality and Morbidity Statistics.

What is the ICD-11?

The 11th revision of the International Classification of Diseases, which goes into effect this month, is managed by the World Health Organization. Its stated purpose is twofold:

  • allows the systematic recording, analysis, interpretation and comparison of mortality and morbidity data collected in different countries or regions and at different times
  • ensures semantic interoperability and reusability of recorded data for the different use cases beyond mere health statistics, including decision support, resource allocation, reimbursement, guidelines and more.

Put simply, the ICD allows different nations with different healthcare systems to measure and tabulate the causes of death and dysfunction in a standardized way. When the mortality of various pathologies, such as cancer and hypertension, is statistically analyzed, such statistics are based on the ICD.

XT9T and MG2A

In the ICD-11, a new category of codes has been added: extension codes. These codes serve as adjectives, better explaining pathologies according to well-understood terms. For example, a cancer caused by occupational exposure to carcinogens can be defined separately from a cancer caused by hereditary factors. One of these extension codes is “age-related”: XT9T.

The other extension code, MG2A, was originally defined as “Old Age”. Defining aging as a disease, while controversial, has long been a goal of many members of the longevity community, and they greatly welcomed this inclusion in the ICD-11. However, this welcome was not universal, and the inclusion spurred quite a bit of debate.

The inclusion of these two codes was spurred by the work of Daria Khaltourina of the International Longevity Alliance, whom we have interviewed previously on this topic.

An expression of concern

In October of 2021, an international group of psychiatrists published a comment entitled Not a disease: a global call for action urging revision of the ICD-11 classification of old age. This comment was largely focused on the negative perception of aging; among their arguments was a decline in certain psychiatric illnesses with age and the contention that frailty is a better code, as it derails the “healthy aging process”.

Most prominently, this argument was focused on the idea that the MG2A code was pathologizing chronological age, thus potentially leading to an increase in ageism and discrimination.

This concern was not focused on XT9T, which has been left unchanged.

The rebuttals

In a Tweet from January 6, the well-known longevist David Sinclair lamented the fact that the MG2A code, rather than being simply “Old Age”, had been redefined as “Ageing associated decline in intrinsic capacity”. Alongside four other professionals, including Alex Zhavoronkov, he posted a rebuttal, Advanced pathological ageing should be represented in the ICD, which focuses on the fact that the original MG2A code was never to attempt to pathologize chronological aging; rather, its purpose was to pathologize biological aging, thus spurring the development of treatments that directly target it.

Dr. Khaltourina et al. also published a rebuttal of the same name that contained similar arguments, focusing on the fact that MG2A was meant to represent a “state of health” rather than a birth year. The authors express the opinion that while XT9T is useful for research and clinical purposes, labeling old age itself as a treatable pathology allows for the problems of older people to be specifically addressed: the exact opposite of ageism.

Conclusions

The ICD is a labeling system that places pathologies into categories, some of which are broader than others. Its goal is to track what people suffer from and what people die of in a coherent and organized way.

However, when considering the broad range of fundamental causes that make up aging, such categories become murkier. Biology is an extremely complicated system, and, as the authors of the ICD well know, any attempt to shoehorn its myriad causes and effects into any reasonably compact list of defined pathologies is bound to encounter problems.

While it does encourage the development of rejuvenative therapies, “old age” as a code lacks granularity. Biological aging is not a single, unified process by any means, and there is, of course, no such thing as a “healthy aging process”; every one of the myriad processes of aging contributes in some way to loss of function followed by death.

If pathologies related to old age were enumerated and placed in the ICD, particularly ones based on readily quantifiable metrics, such as epigenetic alterations, telomere attrition, and senescent cell accumulation, such systemic issues could be more easily targeted for treatment.

Whatever the case, if the myriad causes of aging can be enumerated, targeted, and ultimately intervened against, we may see an end to codes such as MB21.0, which defines age-associated cognitive decline as “a normative (non-pathological) deterioration of higher cortical functions such as thinking, reasoning, comprehension, calculation, learning, language, and judgment.”

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About the author
Josh Conway

Josh Conway

Josh is a professional editor and is responsible for editing our articles before they become available to the public as well as moderating our Discord server. He is also a programmer, long-time supporter of anti-aging medicine, and avid player of the strange game called “real life.” Living in the center of the northern prairie, Josh enjoys long bike rides before the blizzards hit.
  1. Donovan Breone
    January 11, 2022

    Isn’t it a good thing, on the contrary, that it has been renamed like this? because it is the decline in health that is the problem, not the age itself.
    And old age is a rather chronological theme, while “decline in health” or “Senescence” reflects the biological decline that occurs with age (but not because of age itself).

  2. Neil
    January 11, 2022

    This might seem to some a minor issue, but I think it is actually really important. People in the medical and research fields will use, refer to, and be aware of these codes and their meanings. This will have an impact on them subconsciously as well as consciously. When we see a list of healthy foods, for example, our neural connections for foods (on the list) that we already thought were healthy are strengthened, while those that we previously thought were unhealthy are weakened. Perhaps only subtly and imperceptibly at first. If the list is official, the effect is even stronger. The more frequently we interact with it, the stronger the effect becomes.

    Right now, many of our doctors do not recognize or believe that biological aging can be modified either now or in the near future. They do not even want to talk about it. But, with this slight change to the coding of medically treatable problems, doctors will start to see it from within their own field. They will begin to talk about it with each other and with their patients. Patients will start talking to their friends. And this does not even include the benefit to insurance and clinical trials. Sometimes, the subtle, indirect approach has a much stronger effect than the direct attack which can cause the person to dig in their heels.

    • Martin O Dea
      June 13, 2022

      Exactly, Neil

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